Steamship Boss Goes To Washington D.C. To Protest Proposed Speed Restrictions

Jason Graziadei •

Hazlegrove 7883
Photo by Cary Hazlegrove | NantucketStock.com

For the Steamship Authority and Hy-Line Cruises, the unthinkable is still in play: proposed seasonal speed restrictions for vessels that could cripple their ferry operations and have far-reaching impacts for Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. 

And so Bob Davis, the Steamship Authority's general manager, traveled to Washington D.C. this week to plead his case to lawmakers and emphasize the potentially dire consequences should the rule be enacted. 

Steamship Authority general manager Bob Davis

Davis met with the offices of Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and U.S. Representative Bill Keating and "shared the Authority's concern with the proposed NOAA speed rule," according to the Steamship's director of communications Sean Driscoll. 

The proposed speed restrictions to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales have been pending since 2022, but there is new urgency around the issue after NOAA recently recommended to the Office of Management and Budget that the rule be implemented, moving the proposal forward to the final stage in the federal review process. 

"If that process proceeds, there will be another comment period, at which time the Authority will restate and share its concerns about the rule and the drastic effects it would have on our ability to provide lifeline service to the islands," Driscoll said. 

The “proposed North Atlantic right whale seasonal speed zones” would apply to most vessels over 35 feet long from Nov. 1 through May 30, restricting their speed to no more than 10 knots (about 11.5 mph). As it's written, the new rule would apply to all Hy-Line Cruises and Steamship Authority vessels, and effectively eliminate high-speed ferries during those months.

“It’s crazy,” Murray Scudder, president of Hy-Line Cruises, previously told the Current. “It would shut down commerce to both islands. We would be out of business. It’s frustrating because you’re talking about people who don’t have any clue about what the impacts are. The economic impacts they’re listing are $40 million. It’s closer to $40 billion. You can’t imagine it happening, but as it’s written, that’s what would happen.”

The proposed rules have been put forward by NOAA Fisheries to reduce the risk of lethal vessel collisions with endangered North Atlantic right whales. Current estimates peg the North Atlantic right whale population at less than 350 individuals remaining, and scientists believe they are highly susceptible to vessel strikes given their distribution and frequency at near-surface depths, especially for mother and calf pairs.

“Collisions with vessels continue to impede North Atlantic right whale recovery,” said Janet Coit, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “This proposed action is necessary to stabilize the ongoing right whale population decline, in combination with other efforts to address right whale entanglement and vessel strikes in the U.S. and Canada.”

NOAA NMFS 2022 0022 0004 content

Both the Hy-Line and the Steamship have emphasized that their captains have never seen a North Atlantic right whale in Nantucket Sound in the decades they have been operating between Cape Cod and the Islands.

Rob Ranney, who serves as Nantucket's representative on the Steamship Authority's Board of Governors, emphasized that the rule would likely reduce the island's three round-trip car ferry trips per day down to two, and eliminate fast ferry service during the offseason.

"The Steamship is not going to be able to extend its operating day," to deal with the speed restriction rule, Ranney said. "That requires union negotiations, crewing issues, agreements with Hyannis to run probably after midnight, it would turn everything on its head. The Hy-Line is going to be out of business - what are they going to do? The impacts on the island - from doctor appointments to high school games, literally everything going back and forth on the fast boats all winter long - I can’t imagine the devastation it would have on the economy and life on Nantucket. It’s like setting us back 40 or 50 years."

The current mandatory 10-knot speed restrictions implement in specific areas/times off the East Coast apply only to vessels over 65 feet. The new rule would broaden the restrictions to include vessels over 35 feet, as well as expand the areas covered by those speed zones.

Certain vessel categories are exempt - including military, search and rescue, and enforcement - and there is a provision to allow vessels to exceed 10 knots during certain weather conditions that severely impact maneuverability.

NOAA estimates 15,899 vessels would be impacted by the new proposed speed zones, and of those, 59 percent are recreational/pleasure, 22 percent are ocean-going ships, while the other 19% are commercial, industrial, or “other.”

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